When the townspeople of a rural village in Northern Germany cannot find the culprit responsible for the fall that injured their doctor and killed his horse, they let it go. And when a farmer’s wife is killed in a seemingly work-related accident, they again look the other way. But once the Baron’s son is found beaten and hung upside down and the midwife’s son has been dragged into the forest to have his eyes gauged out, people start to talk. When this last victim is discovered he has a note pinned to his chest that recounts the Old Testament adage, “For the sins of the father, you, though guiltless, must suffer.” Is it God punishing this staunch, repressed Protestant town, or is there someone amongst them who is to blame?

Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON, winner of the 2009 Palme d’Or, never answers this question. Everyone, children and adults alike, seems to be capable of savage brutality, and there is much punishment and little resolve. “The starting point,” Haneke explains, “was to show a group of children who embody the ideals of their educators and parents, raise those ideals to absolutes and then judge the parents according to these ideals.” In one scene, the pastor’s daughter kills her father’s pet bird with a pair of scissors and leaves it on his desk. For this she goes unpunished, but for deeds he has no way of knowing whether his children committed they are harshly reprimanded and forced to wear a white ribbon around their arms as a reminder of purity and goodness. Needless to say, the symbol has little effect.

While Haneke’s fans won’t be surprised that the film ends without resolution, 2.5 hours of brutal (though beautifully shot) black and white imagery is a lot to ask audiences to sit through without giving them some kind of story arc to rest their weary heads on. But that’s not what this is about. “The film is intended as an example to show what conditions have to be in place for children and for people to be turned in potential victims of ideology,” says Haneke. The film ends on the eve of WWI, so we can assume he means German fascism. And it’s true, you really can see how these children, who are both the victims and perpetrators of violence, are fodder for Hitler’s ideology. Just thinking of what they (equipped now with a disposition for heartless brutality and Protestant rigor) are capable of, that this is just the beginning of the violence this town will see, makes THE WHITE RIBBON one of the scariest films of the year.